Film crew and cinema staff still face crisis after coronavirus shutdown

Production crew and cinema staff still fear losing their jobs and income despite UK government plans to address loss of income and jobs after the coronavirus pandemic brought the film industry virtually to a standstill.

Having immediately announced widespread layoffs after a national cinema closure came into effect on 17 March, the UK’s biggest chains, including Cineworld and Odeon, changed tack following widespread outrage. Both chains, as well as the Cineworld-owned Picturehouse and Empire Cinemas, have said they will furlough employees along the lines of the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme, which offers to cover 80% of employees’ wages.

However, Cineworld Action Group, formed of employees in the UK, has said that while they have been told that redundancies were reversed, some employees have not received confirmation that their jobs are protected. “Anxieties are still running high due to the lack of communication and clarity. We hope that Cineworld will apologise to all staff for the way we were treated and that they will top up the remaining 20% of our wages.”

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In a statement, Cineworld said: “The government package was a real game changer and we wait for clarification regarding the details. The well-being of our employees has always been a top priority for Cineworld and the company will continue to support them as much as possible.”

Odeon Workers Union, which is not affiliated with entertainment workers’ union Bectu, said that it had also been offered furlough terms (of three weeks, with an extension to 12 weeks) at 80% of current pay by Odeon, the UK’s second-largest operator by market share. The union said: “Employees are kept in this precarious financial situation because it benefits management to not give us regular or consistent schedules. I was already barely making rent, and now 20% of my income is gone. Why should they be able to create conditions that make it hard for their employees to survive, and not be held responsible at a time of crisis?”

An employee of the Empire Cinemas, which operates 14 venues, told the Guardian that they had also been furloughed with 80% pay, with the company considering whether to top up the remaining 20% – but they had no confirmation of whether they would receive any money.

Odeon and Empire have been contacted for comment.

The UK’s production sector has received an equally shattering blow, with all shoots cancelled at almost no notice. However, as the vast majority of film crew are freelance or self-employed, the UK government’s initial set of measures did not offer any help. A follow-up scheme, which offered to pay 80% of income to those earning £50,000 and under, is designed to plug the gap.

Many in the sector, however, fear they are still falling through the cracks. Art director and production designer Blair Barnette says that tax regulations encouraged large numbers of industry personnel to set up as limited companies and operate as contractors, taking minimal PAYE salary and using the dividend as income – which, under the rules of the new scheme, means that Barnette will only receive a tiny grant. “We operate and earn inside the guidelines and the law. And the same government encouraged small businesses to set up and operate. Now when we need something back, we are told we don’t qualify. There are a lot of us drowning right now.”

The accounting systems employed by major Hollywood studios has reportedly only muddied the waters. A location manager, who also operates as a limited company and asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian: “I’ve worked for one massive company for the last five years, but as each production sets up a new company to trade under, it looks like I’ve kept changing employment even though the umbrella company is the same. I can’t get access to any help at all, not even the mortgage holidays. There’s no reward for loyalty in film and TV!”

Bectu also points out that the stop-start nature of freelance work mean many workers were not under contract on 1 March, the government’s cut-off point to receive help. A recent survey by the union suggests that almost 50% of film industry freelancers won’t qualify. Bectu head Philippa Childs said in a statement: “The Treasury should make it clear that these workers can and should be rehired and furloughed by their last engager … It also needs to make the funds available for companies that are furloughing before the end of April as well as insisting employers furlough people rather than allowing them the choice.”

However, Bectu have praised Disney for its decision to furlough employees until May, which it announced on Tuesday after telling crew on 20 March their contracts would be terminated. Childs said: “Disney is taking its responsibilities as an employer seriously and this is model behaviour that the rest of the industry should be looking to follow.”

Among other initiatives, the BFI and the Film and TV Charity have backed a fund designed to provide short-term relief for production workers, which includes a £1m donation from Netflix, and actors’ union Equity has committed a similar sum to its own fund.

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